10 Apr mantras for peace of mind (part three)
There’s no clock in the forest
This is one of my favourite lines of Shakespeare, taken from the comedy ‘As You Like it’. I quote it to myself sometimes, usually on those days when I’m ticking myself off for not getting everything done.
Shakespeare used the forest as a means to take people away from their conventional lives into magical spaces where anything could happen. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream ’ and ‘As you Like It’ are two great examples of this. In ‘As You Like It’, the forest of Arden is first a refuge from persecution and rivalry at court then a fertile ground for romance and philosophy. ‘As you Like It’ is probably best known for Jacque’s soliloquy about The seven stages of life, starting with the immortalized phrase, “all the world’s a stage”.
Ganymede (aka Rosalind) and Orlando’s discourse on the elasticity of time is a lesser-known scene, but I think it is just as astute. Time, according to Ganymede, travels in “divers paces with divers persons”. Depending on ones situation, she says, time can seem to amble, trot or gallop. We’ve all fallen prey to the perniciousness of what is essentially our own creation. If you’re late for a train or surfing a deadline, then you’ve definitely experienced the gallop. Heart in your mouth, stomach in knots.
It should follow that the other extreme, the amble, is simply a pleasant stroll through the minutes and hours. If only. There are few things more agonizing than willing the hands of a clock to move faster, even as they stubbornly refuse to budge. There’s a great lyric by the singer Tracey Thorn – about the crawling pace of an insomniac night – which beautifully illustrates this so called ‘ambling’ of time.
I bet you could tell me
How slowly four follows three
At your most forlorn
Just before dawn
(We walk the same line, Everything But the Girl).
How is time treating you at the moment?
If your experience is anything like mine, it is up to its usual tricks.
When the lockdown began I had a slightly romantic notion that I would get around to doing a lot of things I’d been putting off. I’d finally learn to speak Spanish and sound less like an awkward tourist in tapas bars. I’d switch off all means of communication each night and immerse myself in the latest Hilary Mantel. I’d become a champion baker of bread and do-er of housework. Id have a garden worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show…but somehow there still don’t seem to be enough hours in a day. And I wonder how I ever managed to factor in my daily commute (let alone the classes I can’t currently teach).
It’s when I think about that commute and those classes, and wonder when things will ‘get back to normal’ that time seems to yawn and not so much amble as drag its feet. That part of the schedule which is out of our hands, beyond our control: that part is bewildering. I tell myself a more evolved yoga student would cope better with uncertainty. I try to channel a bit of Kipling: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…” And when that doesn’t work, I will myself into the forest of Arden, with its notable lack of timepieces.
Have you heard of forest bathing? The phrase comes from Japan where it is known as Shrinrin Yoku. It’s not the same as ‘going for a walk’ and it is definitely not as formalized as hiking. In fact the walk must be aimless. Means of navigation must be left at home. This leaves the mind open to possibilities and in many ways, the forest becomes Arden.
The idea of Forest Bathing also reminds me of the Upanishads, those early teachings on Yoga, one of which we took a look at last week.
Today’s mantra is from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
It’s name means “of the great forest”.
Translator Eknath Easwaren has said, “to read it is like walking through a great forest with paths leading off in unpredictable but somehow meaningful directions. We keep coming across various gems of wisdom”.
Many of the early Upanishads refer to the world of nature outside of conventional civilisation. Indeed many of the teachers of these works had withdrawn from permanent dwellings to set up forest Ashrams. The literal translation of ‘Upanishad’ means “to sit down beside”. This makes sense when you think these were originally discourses rather than written texts. I find the image of these discourses, in forest clearings, with no eye on the time, really inspiring. And when I’m stuck in London, a long way from any real wilderness, I can take a forest bath in these somewhat rambling teachings.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad does some serious meandering!
It comprises of six chapters. Much of the work discusses the the nature of the universe and our perception of reality. Far from a flight of fancy, much of what is asserted here has elements in common with modern science. There is a long and fascinating discourse on dreams in chapter two and another on love in chapter four. Many principles of Yoga are introduced in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, including Karma and the ethical observances that Patanjali would expand into the Yamas and Niyamas many centuries later.
Two passages which deal with metaphysics have really caught the human imagination through the ages. Both are used as mantras.
Perhaps the best known of the two is the very first verse of chapter 5.
pūrṇam adaḥ, pūrṇam idaṃ, pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate. (5.1.1)
That is infinite, this is infinite,
From infinity comes infinity,
If infinity is taken away from infinity, only infinity remains.
Purna (literally: full) is often translated as infinity, but I have seen it described as “completeness” (or, more curiously the number zero).
My favourite mantra is an extract from chapter 1.
The Pavamana Mantra is comprised of three simple verses.
asato mā sad gamaya
tamasomā jyotir gamaya
(Oṁ śhānti śhānti śhāntih)
The translation is roughly as follows:
From the unreal lead us to reality
From darkness lead us to light
From death lead us to immortality.
Moving from Unreal to real is a constant theme of the Upanishads and the Sanskrit words used here are ‘asat’ and ‘sat’ which can also be translated as ‘ignorance’ and ‘truth’ or ‘non -existent ‘and ‘existent’.
One word may stand out in the second verse is Tamas (Sanskrit for ‘inertia’ but also heaviness). Tamas is one of the three ‘gunas’ or energies which create the manifest universe. The other two are ‘rajas’ or ‘action’ and ‘satva’ or ‘balance’. In Vedantic times the universe was seen as constantly moving away from inertia through action, towards balance.
The third verse is intriguing because it doesn’t really fit with the yogic principle of recognising our impermanence. But of course it is dealing with the part of ourselves with which we mostly fail to identify: the supreme consciousness which transcends our smaller, physical and (of course) temporary existence.
I love this mantra and I use it daily (at the end of my asana practice). Its brevity is part of its appeal, and means that it can be used as a japa (repeated affirmation). But its real beauty is the simple, threefold assertion of the bigger picture, if you like. It’s a poetic way of saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
It also draws my mind to the first of Patanjali’s eight limbs and one of the Yamas which is hard to get our heads around. Namely, ‘Aparigraha’ or ‘non-attachment’. On a simple level this can be seen as not being materialistic or possessive. But there is a bigger picture here, too. We are wedded to certainties (which is a perfectly understandable part of the survival instinct). As a result we are not good at being unable to predict outcomes. This is a pity because the only thing in life you can be sure of is that nothing is certain! This mantra helps remind me not to be prescriptive, to try and wait out the present moment without judgement. Perhaps then my head will clear enough to see the wood for the trees…
A full PDF of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad with a commentary. If you want to read the pure text it is conveniently highlighted in blue
A nice link to the Pavamana Mantra here with Sanskrit text
and the same site’s transcription of the pūrṇam Adah mantra here
A nice chanted version of that mantra (rare on youtube!)
Yours truly chanting the Pavamana Mantra here (Ive left spaces for call and repeat).